Thursday, September 16, 2010

TEDx Talk Sept. 10th, 2010

Below is the text version of my recent TEDx talk. Enjoy!

I wonder if you can remember the last time you were truly and completely happy?

And I’m not referring to those wonderful moments of rapture we experience from time—when we stand looking out over the ocean at a magnificent sunset, for example, or when we walking into the awesome space of a cathedral. Or even when we’re making love… or during meditation.

No, I’m wondering if you have ever closed your eyes and traveled back through time and space to what I might call your personal Eden, before the loss of innocence—a time when the sky was cloudless, when there were none of those familiar worries gnawing at the edge of consciousness, about money, or job, or your relationship, or the kids… a moment, then, when you felt completely at one with yourself and the universe…

When I was first invited to do this exercise, I found myself on a swing, suspended by long ropes from the branch of a tall pine tree overlooking the red sandstone country church where my father was Rector, and past it over the green landscape of rural Bedfordshire, in England, where I grew up. Behind me is the redbrick Victorian rectory, where we lived. The big kitchen window stands open and through it I hear the voice of my mother, who is calling me in for elevenses, or afternoon tea, or supper…

If I start here, in my own personal Eden, it’s because the place in me that responds to this “calling” of my name is the same, I believe—because we’re talking here about the “real me, the core self”—is the same as the place where I respond to that other, deeper call, the one that tells me not only who I am but what it is I’m given to do with my life. It was not for nothing that I was “called” Peter, as I hope you will come to understand.

It’s my conviction that each one of us has a calling—a mission, if you will, a purpose for our lives—and that we can each hear it, if we stop to listen closely. Those who are the happiest among us, I believe, are those who have listened to the call and who have learned to follow it.

I happen to have been called to be a writer. I have known this since I was twelve years old, not because I actually remember it from that age but because my mother—yes, that same mother whose voice I heard calling me from the Rectory kitchen!—was at pains for the rest of her life to remind me of what I told her at that age: that I wanted to be a writer.

And indeed, I was a writer as a teenager. I wrote poems. I wrote poems about love and war, all those things I knew absolutely nothing about. By the time I got to university, my sole aspiration was to be a poet and, indeed, I wrote a great deal of poetry during my undergraduate years and began to publish it in undergraduate magazines.

But then, alas…! I was ejected into the real world! In my last year at university, I was confronted with the awful truth that poets—even the best of them—do not make a great deal of money. I would need to find some other form of employment if I wished to make my way in the world.

I considered my options. The first was to use my talent with words—such as it was—to make a living. I considered journalism. But then I recalled the face of a wizened old Austrian count in a Weinkeller in Vienna, where I had spent a somewhat inebriated summer as a student, gazing at me through a haze of cigarette smoke and shaking a finger under my nose. Sie sollen NICHT Journalist werden,” he warned me. You must NOT be a journalist. You’re a POET. And so, from the dizzy heights of literary ambition, I chose not to prostitute my talent.

Instead, I went into teaching. A noble profession, I thought, with the dreadful condescension of the youthful intellectual, and one that would afford me wonderful long holidays in which to follow my true vocation. What a delusion! It took me hardly any time at all to discover that by the time the long holidays came around, I was so depleted, emotionally and in every other way, by the demands of an extraordinarily demanding job, that I had no words left to write…

I left teaching… I cast around a bit, then ended up returning to graduate school, buying myself more time to be a poet at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. I also embarked on a doctorate. University teaching, I imagined, was the ticket. Longer holidays! Fewer students, more receptive and more intelligent!

Ph.D. in hand, I came to California to teach Comparative Literature at USC. I began to climb the academic ladder. It took me several years to conclude that this was not was what I was supposed to be doing with my life. The same feelings of vague, sometimes acute dissatisfaction returned—the feeling that you get when you know you’re out of place. But I chose to misinterpret it once more. I was more interested in art than in literature, I convinced myself. I was, however, totally unqualified to teach art, so I moved over into administration. I became a Dean.

Smart move!

I was appointed dean at Otis Art Institute. And later, Dean of the arts at Loyola Marymount University…

Here I interrupt myself. Because while I believe firmly in that “calling” I have been talking about, I’m equally convinced that we ignore it at our peril. We get to be unhappy, sometimes even bitter people, who walk around wishing we were someone else, or somewhere else, or doing something else…

I also believe that in addition to the call, we’re offered all kinds of hints along the way—signposts, as it were, that say NO EXIT, ONE WAY STREET, or DO NOT ENTER; or else they say THIS WAY, THIS WAY…

But we have to pay attention. We have to be watching for them, or we drive right past and end up in the familiar cul-de-sac.

Let me offer some examples of signposts I have ignored, and signposts I have paid attention to.

It will be obvious by now that I ignored, for many years, some very clear signals about my academic career. I don’t wish to sound churlish or ungrateful for the opportunities I had. It was in most respects a wonderfully rewarding path. I climbed the ladder with increasing recognition and success. I was nearly at the top when I decided to quit. I was being invited to interview for top jobs, even presidencies at some truly great art schools around the country, and I was bemused by my inability to accept the offers that came my way. But when I started to think more closely about what had been happening in my life, I could not escape the conclusion that I had managed to sabotage every job I’d ever had. You’ve heard of the Peter Principle. I was the living, breathing Peter. I had kept rising just beyond my level of competence. Well, not so much competence, because I believe I managed to do a decent job. But it just did not feel right. Experience was trying to tell me, at every pivotal point along the way: STOP! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE! YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE DOING THIS WITH YOUR LIFE!

But I chose not to listen. I chose to listen, instead, to the fear—the fear of not having a job, of not having the income, the security, even, perhaps, the identity, in which by this time I had a great deal of my self wrapped up. Only in retrospect would I begin to see things clearly. Academia, even that special branch of academia represented by the art school, was not my calling. It was what I had settled for.

So I did manage to quit. Let me tell you another Peter story. It happened nearly twenty years ago, at one of those moments in life when everything seems to be falling apart. I had finally committed myself to my calling as a writer but was still floundering, unsure what direction I should take or “what to say.” My mission to be a writer was clear to me. That felt good. But what was still not clear was my mission as a writer. It was a matter of, Okay, I’m a writer. So now what?

January 1st, 1992. A propitious date. I went to my desk in the morning to check on my to-do lists. One of them was a list of telephone calls to be returned. There were five names on the list—and every one of them was a Peter. So I joked to myself, this had to be the year of Peter.

Well, it happened that I was commissioned that year to write a piece about an art installation in Rome. It was a big, ambitious light and space installation in the ancient Trajan Market and the artist was Los Angeles-based Peter Erskine. It happened that another LA artist was having an exhibition in Rome at the same time—Peter Shelton.

So there we were, three Peters from Los Angeles in Peter’s city, in the year of Peter. I had been in Rome a couple of years before and had wanted to find the church with Michelangelo’s Moses. I had seen the David in Florence—the epitome of young male virility and strength—and wanted to see Michelangelo’s vision of masculinity at the other end of life, which I had always imagined the Moses to be. But I had failed to find the church on that previous visit. This time, I was determined to find it.

And I did. It was the church of San Pietro in Vincoli—St. Peter in Chains. I was with my wife, Ellie. We found the Moses, and admired that spectacular work of art. Then Ellie wandered off in one direction, I in another. And I found myself looking down into a crypt chapel, where there was a reliquary—a large glass display case which contained what purported to be the very chains from which Peter, the saint, had been released from prison by the angel of the Lord…

Well, I was born on the Anglican feast of St. Peter in Chains. I was given my name by my Anglican priest father for that reason. I realized at that moment that I was looking down at my own chains—the chains that had restricted me as a man, as a writer, for my whole life; and that it was time to free myself from them.

A big epiphany, then. A very big one. I returned to Los Angeles with the realization that this was the purpose of my writing—indeed, the purpose of my life—to search for the freedom that each one of us longs for and few of us achieve. I stand here now, in front of you, as a result of having dedicated myself to that long search. It’s a search in which I am still obviously engaged. I do not expect to ever reach the end.

Not all epiphanies are so big, of course, nor so immediately and completely life-changing. It’s the little ones, the ones that come along every day of our lives, that are the important ones. I have come to believe that everything, every event, every object that we stumble across in our lives, can be read as a signpost; that if we only pay attention, we have something to learn from something as small as a gum wrapper dropped on the sidewalk. (Do I walk on by? Do I make a judgment about the person who dropped it there? Do I stop to pick it up and put it in the trash? Do I reflect a little more deeply on the way we humans trash up our planet? My behavior in that instant, if I examine it, will teach me a lot about who I am and the skillfulness of my actions in the world. It may teach me to modify my ways, to become just a little bit more skillful in the future.

So what I have come to talk about is essentially the examined life. I have come to understand that there is absolutely nothing in this world I cannot learn from, if I listen to what it has to tell me. Because every single thing I look at offers me the opportunity to reflect on the action of my mind.

As I was preparing this talk, my memory took me back to a poem by the 19TH century French poet, Charles Baudelaire. As I see it, in part at least, it’s about those things that call out to us as we pass through the real world, at once acknowledging our presence and asking us to pay attention to them. So let me, in closing, just read a single verse from that poem—first in French, because it happens to be beautiful, and I’m sure there are plenty in the audience who will understand it. And then in English:

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
 Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
 L'homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
 Qui l'observent avec des regards familiers.

Nature is a temple in which living pillars 
 Sometimes give voice to confused words; 
 Man passes there through forests of symbols 
 Which look at him with understanding eyes.

So there you have it. Everything calls to us. Our own voice calls from within. The real world calls to us constantly from out there. And this world, I believe, would be a better place if we each learned to pay attention to the call.

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